Definition of Inversion

As a literary device, inversion refers to the reversal of the syntactically correct order of subjects, verbs, and objects in a sentence. This type of inversion is also known as anastrophe, from the Greek for “to turn back.” In English there is a fairly strict order in which sentences are constructed, generally subject-verb-object (many other languages permit more arrangements of the parts of a sentence). For example, it’s syntactically correct to say, “Yesterday I saw a ship.” An inversion of this sentence could be “Yesterday saw I a ship,” or “Yesterday a ship I saw.”

There is another more obscure definition of inversion as a literary term. Inversion can also refer to writing in regular meter and inserting a metrical foot that is not in that pattern. For example, if a poet were writing in iambic pentameter and used a trochee instead of an iamb in one of the lines, that would be considered inversion. The most famous line from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is such an example: “To be or not to be; that is the question.” There are five metrical feet in this line, four of which are iambs. Shakespeare breaks the iambic pattern with the emphasis on “that” rather than “is.” This type of inversion is also known as substitution or anaclasis.

Common Examples of Inversion

We use inversion fairly frequently in everyday speech when wanting to place emphasis on a certain word. For example, if someone asked you how you felt and you were feeling particularly good, you might say, “Wonderful is the way I feel.” Here are some other examples of inversion a person might say:

  • Shocked, I was.
  • Tomorrow will come the decision.
  • How amazing this is.

You can also often hear examples of inversion while watching sports and hearing the sportscasters talk about the athletes. For example:

  • Fine swing he’s got, Woods.
  • Looking a bit tired now, Federer.
  • An excellent decision she made there.

The character Yoda in Star Wars often speaks in inversions, such as in the following quotes:

  • “Powerful you have become, the dark side I sense in you.”
  • “Patience you must have, my young padawan.”
  • “Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.”

Significance of Inversion in Literature

Just like in common speech, authors use inversion in their works to emphasize certain words. When the natural flow of language is manipulated, the reader takes more notice. It is also more common to find inversion in poetry than in prose because there the unnaturalness of inversion lends itself well to creating a poetic lilt. Poets might also choose to use inversion in order to create a rhyme or uphold a meter that would not work with the syntactically correct order of words.

Examples of Inversion in Literature

Example #1

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

(“Sonnet 18” by Wiliam Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare used many examples of inversion in his plays and poetry, both anastrophe and anaclasis. In this famous sonnet, Shakespeare changes around some of the word order to make lines more poetic and stylized. We see this in the first line of the excerpt, “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines.” In syntactically correct order, the line would read, “Sometimes the eye of heaven shines too hot.” By ending the line with “shines,” Shakespeare can create a rhyme with “declines.” The line also places the emphasis on the parallel between “too hot” and “shines.” There is also inversion in the final couplet of the poem in the unusual phrasing, “So long lives this.” This creates a nice repetition at the beginning of the two lines of the couplet with “so long” and antimetabole of “lives this” with “this gives life.”

Example #2

GLOUCESTER: Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

(Richard III by William Shakespeare)

This is an example of inversion as anaclasis. In this famous speech from William Shakespeare’s Richard III, the very first line that Gloucestor pronounces carries a case in which the stress is in an unexpected place. Though the majority of the lines are in iambic pentameter, the very first metrical foot is a trochee (one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable). This inversion thus places special emphasis on the word “Now.”

Example #3

Hear the tolling of the bells–              
Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!

(“The Bells” by Edgar Allen Poe)

There is a simple example of inversion as anastrophe in the third line of this excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells.” Instead of the syntactically correct phrasing, “Their monody compels a world of solemn thought,” Poe chooses to switch the emphasis. He does this both to keep the rhyme scheme of “bells” with “compels” and also to place the emphasis on the “world of solemn thought.”

Example #4

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

(“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman)

This is another simple inversion example. This excerpt from Walt Whitman includes the first three lines of his poem, “Song of Myself.” In the third line, Whitman writes, “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” If someone were saying that in a non-poetic way, he or she might say, “Every atom that belongs to me belongs to you as well.” Whitman’s inversion of “as good” in the middle of that phrase rather than at the end sets up a nice parallel of the two clauses with “belonging” and “belongs.” If he had placed “as well” at the end, the emphasis would have been there rather than on the more important parallel between the “me” and “you” in the poem.

Example #5

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

(“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost)

This is a case of inversion from Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” that also comes from the very beginning of the poem. The syntactically correct phrasing of the opening line would be, “I think I know whose woods these are.” However, that completely loses the emphasis on the woods themselves. By ending with the word “know,” Frost also is able to set up a rhyme scheme in the poem of AABA, BBCB, CCDC, DDDD.

Test Your Knowledge of Inversion

1. Which of the following statements is not an inversion definition?
A. A figure of speech in which the order of words is reversed so as to emphasize a certain word.
B. The insertion of a metrical foot that is out of place with the rest of a line’s meter.
C. The replacement of a word with its opposite.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. A refers to inversion as anastrophe, and B is the definition of inversion as anaclasis.[/spoiler]

2. Is the following example of inversion from William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” an example of anastrophe (changing the order of words) or anaclasis (inserting an alien metrical foot)?

But no such roses see I in her cheeks

A. Anastrophe
B. Anaclasis
C. Both
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. The line is written in iambic pentameter, and each metrical foot can be considered an iamb. There is inversion in the words “see I,” however, which is an inversion in order and thus is anastrophe.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven:”

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there and nothing more.

Which line contains an inversion example?
A. “Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
B. And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
C. Darkness there and nothing more.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. “Truly your forgiveness I implore” is an inversion of the normal sentence, “I implore your forgiveness.”[/spoiler]